Aerial Phenomena Studies


The skies contain many kinds of objects, and a bewildering range of effects of light and colour, tricks of refraction and reflection, many of them rare and of great beauty. Perplexing aerial phenomena have been seen for as long as people have looked up and wondered.

Today most of the ancient mysteries have been understood, and the skywatcher can classify the vast majority of things seen in the sky as astronomical and meteorological phenomena known to science, or as manmade objects such as orbital satellites and aircraft. Almost all the things that may seem strange to the lay observer today can, with some effort, be explained.

But not all. Even today new phenomena continue to be discovered, such as "elves", "sprites" and "jets", huge but fleeting electrical phenomena high in the atmosphere; and some phenomena which have been witnessed by ordinary people for centuries and scientifically recognised for decades - such as "ball lightning" - still are not understood. So it would be difficult to defend the proposition that we have a pigeon-hole for everything that goes on in our skies, and buried somewhere in the rich records of anomalous observations there may be evidence of novel phenomena of interest to science.

The sightings that can be explained are often considered dross, of no interest. They are not. Nature - including human nature - is full of wonders. The hunt for explanations of puzzling experiences is fascinating, and is a science education in itself. Many cases remain without a clear-cut solution, but success, when it comes, is rewarding, failure never less than intriguing. And the possibility of finding something truly strange among the data adds a frisson of excitement to the exercise.

There follows a selection of some of my research work in this area. Case studies are arranged chronologically by observation date. Other papers are below.


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Josť Bonilla, Zacatecas Observatory 1883
[under construction] On two nights in August 1883 Mexican astronomer Josť Bonilla observed and photographed streams of strange, dark bodies passing across the face of the sun. Bonilla believed that they were large and far from the Earth, publishing an account in the influential French journal L'Astronomie. Today Bonilla's images are often described as "the first UFO photographs" and for that reason have special historical significance. The observation remains influential amongst enthusiasts. My own analysis suggests, however, that the objects were probably birds.

Operation Charlie 1947
Another episode of historic significance. Long after the end of WWII Britain's east coast radar defences were triggered several times by mysterious intrusions. RAF interceptors were launched and picked up the the "ghost aeroplanes" on airborne radar too, but the phantoms seemed to evade the Mosquito fighters with ease. They became the subject of an Air Ministry investigation known unofficially as Operation Charlie. The core incidents were never satisfactorily explained, and they secretly influenced USAF policy when, months later, America and the world first heard of "flying saucers". This definitive analysis draws on records held by the then Air Ministry and UK Met Office, including RAF reports, weather charts and radiosonde balloon readings. In this case the core events remain very difficult to explain.

Kenneth Arnold sighting 1947
The famous sighting of nine "saucer-like" aircraft by pilot Kenneth Arnold near Mt Rainier, Washington, on June 24, 1947 is credited with triggering a global fascination with strange objects in the sky which continues to this day. Numerous explanations have since been offered but none has commanded a consensus. Over 60 years later, popular legend, and even the specialist literature, remains full of myths and misconceptions about what Arnold reported. This report attempts to shed historical and scientific light on the origins of the "flying saucers".

Lockheed (Kelly Johnson) 1953
[under construction] The name of Clarence 'Kelly' Johnson, a Lockheed Chief Engineer and later head of Lockheed's famous "Skunk Works" Advanced Development Projects office, is synonymous with the design of such black-world aeronautical icons as the U-2 spyplane and the hypersonic SR-71 Blackbird. Not so many people know that Johnson and a plane-load of top Lockheed people including the company's Chief Aerodynamicist and Chief Flight Test Engineer reported sighting a flying saucer off the coast of California in December 1953. What was it?

Labrador, Newfoundland 1954 pdf
In this famous observation by Captain, crew and passengers of a luxury transatlantic BOAC airliner, shape-changing objects seemed to pace the plane for 80 miles, exciting world-wide attention. Some unusual type of mirage has often been suspected but attempts to make the theory work have been unsuccessful. This study considers several alternative explanations, bringing together fresh analysis, previously unpublished information and expert opinion to suggest a mirage model that might have application beyond this case to a small but significant number of similar observations around the world.

RAF Lakenheath/RAF Bentwaters 1956
This iconic incident around USAF-tenanted RAF airfields in Suffolk, England, has had a special status ever since the USAF-sponsored Colorado University UFO Project declared in 1969 that "at least one genuine UFO" was probably involved. At that time relatively little information was in the public domain. Since then the question of what happened has grown infuriatingly complex as more sources were uncovered. Having done published work on this case back in 1987 and 1988, and having a special interest in radar propagation, I was invited in 2001 to work with a team of experienced UK researchers preparing a report based on much new documentary evidence which, it was anticipated, would definitively demystify the story for a new millenium. As it turned out, things were a little more complicated than they at first appeared . . . .

RAF West Freugh 1957
Possibly unique among British observations, in that we have a documentary record of an MoD Technical Intelligence analysis concluding officially that large, unidentified 'objects of unknown origin' were detected by multiple RAF radars in SW Scotland. MoD appears not to have known what to do with such a finding, which languished forgotten in classified files for several decades. The present study examines a number of possible theories in detail, but finds no satisfactory solution.

Trindade Island 1958
No more famous and more contentious photographic case exists than this, a series of pictures shot from the deck of a Brazilian Navy hydrographic survey vessel by an invited civilian photographer in the presence of many witnesses. Prints of excellent quality, from negatives ostensibly developed on board ship under strict conditions, appear to leave no middle ground: Either an honest-to-goodness "flying saucer" buzzed the Almirante Saldanha in January 1958 or a clever hoax was carried off in difficult circumstances and with inside military connivance by individuals who maintained their stories adamantly and consistently until the day they died. Here you can read a dispassionate deconstruction of the arguments supporting the latter sceptical and economical conclusion. They should to be easy to defend . . . . Shouldn't they?

Antarctic "black light ray" 1966
Long regarded by some as evidence for a completely new natural phenomenon (or something even weirder), photographs taken by a British Antarctic Survey expedition member on a remote ice shelf appear to show a strange cloud emitting a beam of "black light" that reflects from the ice and disturbs a cloud of powder snow. I was able to show convincingly that the photographs show a deceptive example of anticrepuscular rays, fascinating and unusual, but a well-understood effect of sunlight, cloud shadow and perspective.

Minot AFB 1968
With sightings of luminous objects being reported by Air Force security teams around the Strategic Air Command missile silos near Minot Air Force Base, Minnesota, an inbound B-52 was asked to keep a look out. A ground radar painted an unknown target near the plane. Shortly thereafter the B-52's bomb/nav radar detected unusual echoes. Probably in late 2004 I was first asked by the principal investigators to advise on the unusual type of radar involved and assist in interpretation of the 'scope photographs. As so often, the extant technical data and documentary records proved to be both voluminous and frustrating. A steep and engrossing learning curve led, several years later, to the completion of this report - a small part of the larger ongoing project to fully document what remains a genuine, if inconclusive, mystery.

Channel Islands 2007
When an Aurigny Airlines pilot and several passengers saw what appeared to be two huge luminous cigars in the sky near Alderney in the Channel Islands the story immediately grabbed headlines in newspapers and TV shows around the world. Amid much unsound media speculation, Capt Ray Bowyer and the Jersey Air Traffic Control authorities agreed to work exclusively with a small group of respected UK investigators to study the cause. We were given access to radar video and the cooperation of ATC controllers and engineers. After months of work with the help of meteorologists and other expert consultants our 180-page report concluded that despite reasons to suspect an unusual atmospheric-optical phenomenon we were unable to conclusively explain what was seen.

Exeter, New Hampshire, 1965
This dramatic "close encounter" witnessed by police officers was very influential and played a significanmt part in the increasing public dissatisfaction with USAF efforts that led up to the commissioning of the University of Colorado's "Condon Report". It has acquired the status of a classic. A recent (2011) claim by two prominent CSICOP members to have finally explained the sightings caused some controversy. This study examines the basis of that particular claim, concluding that it is not supportable.



Shough, M., 'A Review of 21 Ground & Airborne Radar UAP Contact Reports Generally Related to Aviation Safety, for the Period October 15, 1948 to September 19, 1976'.

Published Dec. 2002 as NARCAP Tech Report #6 but written a few years previously. I still consider this a useful study, despite the fact that a number of entries could now be considerably updated. For example, today (2010) the files of the USAF Project Blue Book containing hundreds of interesting US cases between 1947 and 1969 are archived online in their entirety. But at the time of writing easy access to Blue Book and other sources did not exist and available information was in some cases fragmentary.

Shough, M., Report on Radar Coverage and Propagation Conditions in the area of Chicago O'Hare International Airport, Nov 7, 2006

The sighting by pilots and airport workers of a curious object apparently punching a hole through cloud directly above Chicago O'Hare in 2006 was another event that attained world-wide prominence, and incoherent initial responses by FAA spokesmen merely encouraged ill-informed speculation. The aviation safety angle made this a natural case for NARCAP who began a timely investigation. As Research Associate with a special interest in radar I was invited to submit a preliminary report on the architecture of the Air Traffic Control system and other radar sources in the O'Hare TMA and its environs. This became part of the following major study published by NARCAP:

Haines, Richard F., Ph.D.(Senior Editor/Chief Scientist) with K. Efishoff, D. Ledger, L. Lemke, S. Maranto, W. Puckett, T. Roe, M. Shough, R. Uriarte, Report of Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon and its Safety Implications at O'Hare International Airport on November 7, 2006 Case 18 March 9, 2007

Baure., J-F., Clarke, D., Fuller, P., Shough, M., 'Unusual Atmospheric Phenomena Observed Near Channel Islands, UK, 23 April 2007'

This short summary of our team's report on the Channel Islands investigation was published in Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 22, No. 3, pp. 291-308, 2008. A print edition of the full report in the UPIAR research monograph series is currently (Sept 2009) in preparation by CISU,(Centro Italiano Studi Ufologici).

Shough, M., 'Radar and the UFO', in: Evans & Spencer (eds), 'UFOs: 1947-87, the 40-Year Search for an Explanation', Fortean Tomes/BUFORA, London 1987, . p.211-229

Shough, M., 'Distant Contact: Radar-Visual Encounter at Bentwaters', in: Spencer & Evans (eds), 'Phenomenon: From Flying Saucers to UFOs - 40 years of Facts and Research', Futura/Macdonald, London & Sydney, 1988 pp.82-96.

Shough, M., Radar Cross-Section of a Sphere.

This paper was commissioned in June 2009 by NARCAP Chief Scientist Dr Richard Haines as part of NARCAP's 'Project Sphere', a study of a class of reports of spherical UAPs made by aircrews. My brief was to study issues affecting radar detectability of spherical targets, insofar as these are of relevance to NARCAP's aviation safety mission. The report was completed in Sept. 2009. Publication pending.

Ballester Olmos, V.-J., & Shough, M., Spheres in Airborne UAP Imagery

Sept. 2009 (FOTOCAT Report #5; NARCAP Project Sphere Technical Report). Publication pending.

Shough, M., A Social History of Ball Lightning

An article originally published in the magazine MAGONIA - Interpreting Contemporary Vision & Belief, #81, May 2003, pp.3 - 8